New York Zen

by Yogen Donald Wise
Elmira Correctional Facility, Elmira NY

My name is Yogen Donald Wise. I am a Zen Buddhist practitioner presently incarcerated by the New York State Department of Correctional Services. For me, Buddhism has enabled me to witness the transformation of my personality. Through the practice of zazen (zen meditation) I have been able to see a ray of sunlight in the depths of hell. I am grateful to several volunteer zen teachers operating in the New York prisons, Rev. Yoshin Radin, Rev. Kobutsu Malone, Rev. Saman Sodo and E-Kun Liz Potter. My journey began in 1982 at the Auburn Correctional Facility in Auburn, New York, when I was first introduced to Buddhism by Rev. Yoshin Radin who was a volunteer Buddhist chaplain in the facility. I suspect that I was always a “spiritual” person, but did not have the strength to pursue a path by myself. Through Rev. Yoshin I found within myself a powerful inner light that was joyful beyond words. At Auburn, I did not miss a single day of scheduled Buddhist services and practiced daily in my cell. In 1985, I was honored to receive jukai, a ceremony where I was given the Buddhist name Yogen, and made a lifelong promise to follow the way of the Buddha. After taking jukai my journey began to really unfold. It was like watching the petals of a beautiful white lotus blossom as it revealed itself for the first time. It was then that I began to realize how powerful zazen practice really is. I suddenly saw the truth in the saying about zazen: “Even those who have practiced it for just one sitting will see all their evil karma erased.....” In just one sitting, we can realize our “true self.” Zen practice is hard work, but it pays off in the long run. It has really paid off for me, my transformation has been a spiritual lifesaver for me. Buddhist meditation and personal experience have taught me that lasting happiness comes when I go within to “just be still.” Through training we learn to understand what goes on in our mind. Everyone has the potential to master meditation, to subdue ego?s rule of their own mind. Zen practice requires deep concentration - to actively, deliberately take a good look at who and what we are, to work with that insight in order to become more positive in this life, and to see everybody as you see yourself. This is the Buddhist way of life. I was transferred from Auburn prison in 1986 to another correctional facility where there was no Zen Buddhist program. My karma there, my test, was to keep up my zen meditation, my zazen practice. After a little time there I was beginning to lose the “taste” of zazen. There were no other Buddhist practitioners there, and at that time I was only an infant on the path. It appeared to me that since I had left my teacher and my sangha (Buddhist community) behind, that somehow a vital life energy was missing. I stopped my practice at that time, I was confused, I did not know what to do for myself. Through practice we learn to perceive how the mind works. When we stop practice, we can watch the mind go back to old patterns. In my everyday life, I began to experience problems because I was gradually losing the “single-pointed mind” developed in practice. Three years later I was transferred to Sing Sing Correctional Facility. There was no Zen Buddhist program there either; there was a “stress reduction” meditation program. The group was large, but the energy level was poor and the program was falling apart. I joined the group and after attending some meetings, it became evident to me that the group was nothing more than an arena for psychological games and ego trips. A few men in the group wanted something better, something richer, offering more substance. The civilian volunteers who were the advisors for the meditation program decided to withdraw from the group and arranged with Kobutsu, then a lay teacher, to assume responsibility for the group. The group talked with Kobutsu about Buddhism, our practice, and our experiences. It was really wonderful, the meeting with a Buddhist teacher. The prisoners did the proper work from the inside, Kobutsu and E-Kun worked with people and officials on the outside. The Zen Buddhist religious program began about three months after our first contact with Kobutsu. When the program started we had nothing to work with, we had only one new white sheet to go on the table that served as our altar. Brother Kobutsu brought in a little Buddha statue, we gathered some old blankets to fold and sit on for meditation cushions. I believe we started with only eight men, but these men were very sincere. I was so overjoyed to finally have a Zen Buddhist program that I went and took the old bell off my typewriter to use for an inkin (meditation bell). Our group at that time met in a shabby room in the hospital building. We began our meetings at 6:30 p.m. on Monday evening, we sat until 8:30 p.m. After about six months the group became too big for the small room we had in the hospital. We requested access to a bigger room in the chapel basement. There, we would have enough room to practice with twenty prisoners. Our request was approved a few months later. We started to receive donations for our zendo (meditation room). Our first donation was a calligraphy scroll donated by Eido Shimano Roshi, the abbot of Dai Bosatsu Zendo monastery in Livingston Manor, New York. Kobutsu and E-Kun are students of Eido Roshi and associated with the Dai Bosatsu Zendo community. Donations for our new Sing Sing zendo were received from many members of the Dai Bosatsu sangha (community). A Buddhist nun named Rev. Saman Sodo raised funds that enabled us to purchase zabutons and zafus (mats and cushions) for sitting practice. We were all extremely grateful to retire our old blankets and sit on real cushions! Many of us were in much pain while sitting on those blankets, and the group felt really honored by Rev. Saman?s hard work. Rev. Saman was often seen as our angel of compassion. I sincerely hope that the volunteers who have worked to support our practice in Sing Sing receive back some of the generosity and sincerity that they have shown to so many prisoners. Buddhist prisoners, bow with hands together in gassho (thanks) and with open hearts to those who have been so kind to us. I will work diligently to continue to open my mind to all that it means to be a Buddhist. I look forward to the day when I can make the commitment to become a Zen Buddhist monk so that I may be of service to others. This is what I value and want to dedicate the rest of my life to. With great respect and love, I thank everybody with all my heart, Gassho.